Why this Blog Exists

To make the case for expanding the Park Slope Historic District

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Transitions: Norval White, 1926-2009

Today's Times brings news of the passing of Norval White, co-author (with Elliot Willensky) of the incomparable AIA Guide to New York City.

The Times writes:

First published in 1968, the AIA Guide tapped into and fostered a growing national awareness that America had an architectural past worth preserving, a present worth studying and a future worth debating.

Indeed, here in New York City, that past is still all around us, growing ever more precious and preservation-worthy every day. Thanks to Norval White for enlightening us all, and helping us to see what is "hidden in plain sight".

Monday, December 28, 2009

Permitted Changes in Historic Districts - Part 1

We've devoted some previous posts to changes that might not have been permitted by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, which issues permits for proposed changes within historic districts.

So what kinds of changes does the LPC allow?

Perhaps we might gain some understanding by reviewing changes that the LPC has already permitted within the current Park Slope Historic District.

Minor changes might include a new iron stoop handrail, such as the one below, on the south side of Garfield Place between 7th & 8th Avenues. The original brownstone stoop is only 14" high, and the owner added a new iron handrail in 1999. The permit application was submitted by the contractor, and a "Permit for Minor Work" was forthcoming from the LPC in about a week:

234 Garfield Place - Park Slope Historic District

In 14th Street one finds a modern stoop elevator, installed to facilitate access via wheelchair. We've heard an LPC spokesperson state that these kinds of accessibility modifications are approved "all the time":

484 14th Street - Park Slope Historic District

At the other extreme are entirely new buildings.

In 1992, the Berkeley-Carroll School constructed an addition on its Lincoln Place campus, which is within the Park Slope Historic District. The AIA Guide to New York City characterizes the addition, by Fox and Fowle, as "conservative brick and limestone":

Berkeley-Carroll School addition, Lincoln Place, Park Slope Historic District

More recently, Poly Prep constructed a new addition to its lower school building on Prospect Park West, within the current historic district. The original building, a white limestone high Romanesque Revival extravaganza ("cadaverous" - AIA Guide) designed in 1889-91 by Montrose Morris for industrialist Henry Hulbert, was one of only two free-standing mansions remaining on Prospect Park West, so the recent addition was subject to a particularly exacting review:

Poly Prep Lower School addition, 1st Street, Park Slope Historic District

Both school additions were built on empty land. But sometimes the LPC will permit demolition of an existing building, as long as the existing building does not "contribute" to the historic district. A small apartment house recently replaced an existing, "non-contributing" garage at 127 8th Avenue, between Carroll Street and Montgomery Place:

121-123-125-127 8th Avenue, Park Slope Historic District

In short, historic district designation does not "freeze" development. It does, however, control development and direct it in ways that enhance, rather than degrade, Park Slope's unique "sense of place"... at least in contrast to some of the changes outside the Historic District!:

12th Street - outside the Park Slope Historic District

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Historic District is Civic Council Membership's Top Issue

This fall, the Park Slope Civic Council conducted a survey to discover which local issues were most important to our membership. The survey was actually undertaken by the PSCC's Membership Committee, in an effort to better engage with the community.

The results were presented at the December 3, 2009 meeting of the Park Slope Civic Council. Approximately 135 members took the time to complete the survey. The top 5 issues are shown in the graph below (another 5 "lesser" issues were on the next slide):

Park Slope Civic Council - Membership Survey Results

Topping the list is Historic District Designation. 68% of respondents considered the historic district to be a "very important" issue for the Park Slope Civic Council, nudging out "Safe Streets", at 67%, for first place.

Thanks to the PSCC Membership Committee for conducting the survey and preparing the presentation.

Anyone who cares about Park Slope should definitely consider joining and becoming involved with the Civic Council... a vital local organization is of paramount importance to any community, and we need all the help we can get. Is there an issue you feel we are not addressing? Join us and make it happen! It's your community, and your organization.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What Designation Might Not Allow - Part 2

Our last post reviewed examples of modifications to existing buildings that might not have been allowed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Today we will feature examples of new development in Park Slope that might have been examined very closely by the LPC.

Keep in mind that Park Slope is nearly fully built up; there are not many empty lots left to develop. Each of the buildings shown below most likely replaced an earlier structure that stood on the same spot. The first hurdle to constructing a new building in a historic district is whether the existing building contributes to the historic character of the district. The LPC will include such assessments in the detailed "Designation Report" that it compiles for each historic district. The LPC would most likely be reluctant to permit the demolition of a designated building that contributes to the character and "sense of place" of a historic district.

The next hurdle for new construction in a historic district, assuming a developer can gain control of an empty building site, is that the LPC will consider whether the proposed building detracts from the historic fabric of the district. The proposed new building should not be an ersatz replica of a historic building. But it seems reasonable that the LPC will seek to protect the quality of the designated historic district, and will expect any new building to be sensitive to and respectful of the larger district, and to not detract from the integrity of the historic district in which it is placed.

Some examples...

Generic "little box" stores, which as we have seen are great at annihilating sense of place, might not be permitted in a historic district:

5th Avenue - Rite Aid

9th Street - CVS

5th Avenue - Key Food

Mid-block buildings that tower over their neighbors might not be allowed:

11th Street

Some buildings seem like maybe they're trying to fit in, but just don't for some reason:

6th Avenue

Update: Commenter "slopefarm", writing on Brownstoner, says that the building above is not in fact new construction: "That is not infill construction -- they busted open the brownstone facade, put in a front extension with a stone face, and stuccoed up the rest of the exterior. Marred an otherwise neat row of small brownstones."

Some buildings seem to go out of their way to contrast with their neighbors:

13th Street

Developers often gain control over multiple contiguous lots, replacing smaller buildings with larger ones that can overwhelm the streetscape:

8th Street

15th Street

And finally some new buildings are just totally weird:

12th Street

We suspect that all of the buildings shown above might have come in for close scrutiny by the LPC, had they been proposed within the boundaries of a historic district. Most of them seem to detract, at least in our mind, from the unique "sense of place" that characterizes Park Slope. It might have been preferable had the original buildings been left alone.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What Historic District Designation Might Not Allow - Part 1

Today we're featuring some photographs of alterations that might not be permitted by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, if the properties had been within a historic district when the alterations were proposed to the LPC.

Note we say "might not be permitted". The cases below represent our opinions only, based on our understanding of what the LPC does and does not try to promote. We might be wrong here; we are not the LPC and we do not claim to represent them. The following cases are based only on our own casual understanding of how the LPC works. We invite interested readers to review the LPC's website for more authoritative information.

Note also that some of the cases below are inside the current Park Slope Historic District, which was designated in 1973. The LPC does not force any property owner to change any conditions that existed prior to designation; the LPC only reviews proposed work and changes undertaken after designation.

Here we focus on modifications to existing buildings. In subsequent posts we will review new construction that might possibly not pass muster with the LPC, and also highlight some recent changes that have been sanctioned by the LPC.

First up, Park Slope's famous "Pink House":

233 Garfield Place, Park Slope Historic District

We can actually see "Big Pink" at this very moment, because we happen to live across the street from it. And we have to say, during the fifteen years that we've been gazing at it, the Pink House has grown on us. Although already included in the Historic District, it's almost landmark-worthy on its own, due to its amazing hue. It is a kind of throwback to an earlier Slope; it is by far the most photographed house on the block; and it is enormously popular with children. We once witnessed a wedding party climb up to be photographed on its stoop. And we're very fond of its elderly owner, who cares for it meticulously. In any case, there are so many greater abominations underway in Brooklyn, it's hard to get exercised about pink paint...

All this said, the LPC would probably discourage such an unusual color choice, were someone to propose this within a historic district. We suspect the LPC would try to work with the property owner to discover a more historically compatible choice. And, although we may feel a tinge of regret when the Pink House is inevitably restored to its original brownstone glory, perhaps it's all for the best.

Next up, a house within the current Historic District that has done everything wrong:

190-188 8th Avenue, Park Slope Historic District

The two buildings shown above were once twins, but the one on the left was ruined by a long-ago "remuddling". The stoop was demolished, and the scars left when the stoop was torn away were covered by "Permastone" around the ground-floor entrance. One parlor window has been bricked up. The lovely original peaked roof, visible on the house on the right, was destroyed. This kind of desecration would most likely be disallowed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and rightly so, we feel.

Below, more "Permastone" on the center three buildings, which are part of a larger row in 10th Street:

10th Street above 7th Avenue, north side

These three buildings once matched their companions on either side. Note that the cornices have been removed, and the projecting window frames have been shaved off as well. The LPC would probably disallow these kinds of changes.

Below, another pair of buildings about which we have fulminated before, that once were twins:

9th Street between 4th & 5th Avenues, north side

Here, the lovely projecting window bays of the 8-family apartment house on the left have been shaved off. We suspect such changes would be disallowed by the LPC.

There are a great many "two-and-a-half" story houses in Park Slope, often in continuous rows of 10 or 15 houses, all alike. The houses often have a pitched roof and tiny windows in the front, but a full-height, flat-roofed 3rd story in the rear. Some long-ago owners thought it would be a good idea to remove the cornice and raise up the front of the 3rd floor, as in the cases below:

497 1st Street, Park Slope Historic District

362A 6th Avenue

Unfortunately such modifications break the lovely symmetry of these long rows of formerly identical houses. We suspect the LPC would disallow these kinds of changes.

In other cases, the owner decides to add an entire new floor or floors atop an existing building, as in the examples below:

393 6th Street

304 7th Avenue

7th Avenue & 14th Street, northeast corner

There are definitely ways to greatly expand an existing building in a way that satisfies the LPC, and we hope to showcase an example in a subsequent post. But we suspect the above examples, where the new construction is so highly visible from the street, might encounter difficulties during LPC review.

Occasionally an owner decides to expand the existing building both upward and toward the rear, as in the following example:

7th Avenue & 15th Street, southwest corner

Such an expansion creates an odd juxtaposition in which the new construction appears to envelop or swallow up the old. There is a famous case in Carroll Gardens which some have dubbed the "Tetris House". The LPC might not immediately approve such a proposed change.

We never cease to be amazed at the ingenious ways people find to mess up a perfectly lovely old house. All we can suggest is that the LPC really, really wants to hear from you before you make any changes to the exterior of your building. They will work with property owners to insure that proposed changes are compatible with the historic fabric of Park Slope. We will present examples of permitted modifications in subsequent posts.

Monday, December 7, 2009

1st Street Row: Split by the Historic District

On the north side of 1st Street just above 7th Avenue stands another continuous row of related buildings split by the current Park Slope Historic District boundary.

According to the district's Designation Report, the four houses from 465 to 469A 1st Street were built in 1884-5 in Neo-Grec style by Brooklyn owner-architects Martin and Lee:

Park Slope Historic District Designation Report, p. 100

465-469 are pictured below; 469A, just out of the frame to the right, is identical to 469. The builders seem to have been trying out different configurations in these houses: 469 & 469A are 2-story over basement; 467 is 3-story over basement, and 465 features a full-height, two-sided V-front. Detailing, however, is similar on all of the houses:

465-469 1st Street - Park Slope Historic District

It is likely that builders Martin & Lee erected the houses in small groups, as they did in their lots through the block on the south side of Garfield Place above 7th Avenue.

Six houses stand between 7th Avenue and the Historic District boundary on the north side of 1st Street. The Designation Report notes that these houses were "built at the same time". The statement is ambiguous: were they built at the same time as each other? Or at the same time as the adjacent houses inside the district?

455-463 1st Street - unprotected

A clue can be found in our comprehensive Documentary History of the Park Slope Historic District Expansion Study Area. An 1886 citation from the Brooklyn Eagle notes that builders Martin and Lee have recently completed three narrow (16') houses at the northeast corner of 7th Avenue and 1st Street:

Brooklyn Eagle, April 2, 1886, p. 1 ("City Growth")

Altogether, six identical narrow houses, all apparently by Martin and Lee, stand together between 7th Avenue and the current Historic District boundary, adjoining the four additional, stylistically similar houses by Martin and Lee within the current Historic District. The entire row was apparently built between 1884 and 1886.

463 1st Street - detail (unprotected)

469 1st Street - detail (Park Slope Historic District)

Why were the six houses nearest to 7th Avenue excluded? Let's do the math: six houses, at 16 feet each, equals a total of 96 feet, or very close to the 100' depth of a standard Brooklyn building lot. Could these houses have been excluded because it was assumed they would be replaced by modern towers along 7th Avenue? Is that the future we envision for our community?

But more importantly, should "development potential" be the basis for landmarking decisions? If the adjacent buildings inside the current district, stylistically identical, and erected by the same builders at the same time, are worthy of protection in a historic district, should not the rest of the row down to 7th Avenue also be protected?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Historic District Expansion Update

The effort to expand the Park Slope Historic District is featured in the current (Nov. 2009) issue of the Civic News, the monthly publication of the Park Slope Civic Council.

The article profiles the work of two interns who are currently conducting formal research into the proposed expansion area in the South Slope. One intern is researching building files in Brooklyn's Department of Buildings, while the other intern is conducting field survey work under the direction of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission. The interns' work is being funded by grants obtained by the Park Slope Civic Council.

The article may be accessed here (via "read pdf" link at bottom of page).